Learn About ACEs and Create a Healthier Future

This post is made possible with support from the American Academy of Pediatrics through a cooperative agreement with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. All opinions are my own.

In 2019, I read more than 1,500 articles about social work in my role as the editor of a nonprofit social work membership organization’s newsletter.

Here’s something that is emerging as a common thread more and more often as I choose stories each day: Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs for short). 

Each time I’ve read that acronym, it has registered in my brain in a “yes, that makes sense” kind of way, partially because my undergraduate degree is in child development and my graduate degree is in counseling. But college was a long time ago, and the amount of research on the topic has expanded a great deal. It’s time to learn more about the details behind the acronym. I hope you’ll join me. It’s something we all need to know.

What is an ACE?

ACEs happen to children between birth and age 17. These potentially traumatic occurrences include things such as experiencing abuse or violence; witnessing violence in the community or at home; and the death by suicide (or attempt) of a family member.

Environmental factors can also play a part in ACEs. The presence of a family member with mental health problems, substance abuse, or the type of instability that comes from having a parent incarcerated or a divorce or separation.

The long-term effects of ACEs sometimes don’t show up until years later. Adults who experienced ACEs as children have been shown to have higher rates of smoking, heart disease, death by suicide, and depression among other health issues. 

This article explains more about ACEs and how they can show up in adulthood. 

ACEs are not destiny, and we can be the ones to change things

All of us can help prevent ACEs and lead children toward a healthier adulthood. Preventing ACEs makes a huge difference. Intervening in situations causing ACEs can reduce the number of adults with depression by 44%.

Our involvement — by providing safe, stable and nurturing relationships and environments in childhood — can have so many beneficial long-term effects, such as more robust brain architecture and more consistent employment. 

That safety and stability can provide a sort of “reset” and keep the body’s stress system from succumbing to the health and behavior compromises that result from ACEs.

Learn About ACEs and Create a Healthier Future

The way women in prison have challenged my thinking

As I’ve been writing this post, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about the women I have met through my volunteer work at a prison. I think of them for two reasons. One is the way they talk about the direction their lives have taken and the experiences of their childhoods. Obviously, every story is different, and some people end up incarcerated who experienced no ACEs. 

Research, though, points to the disproportionate amount of ACEs experienced by incarcerated people in childhood. If those ACEs could be reduced, the outcome could be less crime and reduced spending on correctional facilities.

More than talking about themselves and their lives before prison, the absolute first thing every one of them who is a mother discusses is her children. They look forward to making their children’s upcoming visits meaningful; they think — hard — about how the networks of support back at home are helping their children navigate life. They want safety, stability and nurturing for their kids.

It takes reinforcements to provide safe, stable and nurturing environments

If there are children in your life, you can be a part of creating safety and stability while providing a nurturing environment. The way that plays out may be different if, unlike me, you still have children at home, but there are ways each one of us can make a difference for kids in our homes, in our lives, or both.

As I’ve learned more about ACEs, I’ve been thinking about three people who have helped strengthen me emotionally so I can be in a position to help lessen the chances that ACEs will occur for kids I know and love.

  1. Melanie. My therapist, Melanie Pelc of The Living Room, has made a difference for me. Before starting a more formal relationship, she was the social worker for our family when my father-in-law was in hospice. It helped to start our relationship at a place beyond “square one,” since she already knew a good bit about our family dynamics. Also, she comes to my house, which is *huge* because it makes it that much harder to back out of an appointment.        
  2. Sandy. My friend, Sandy P., would make the list anyway, but there’s a particular reason I think of her. We got to know each other through the running community. Although I’m not running anymore, she still makes a huge effort to stay in touch. The most important element that puts her on the list is that she organized volunteer opportunities for us after Hurricane Michael. Even though we like purely social occasions, something was different about volunteering together.
  3. Barb. My mother-in-law, Barb, passed away in 2013, but she was the type of person we all need in our lives. I remember my sister-in-law saying, “you can tell her anything, and she won’t look down on you for it but she’ll help you get perspective.” This is a bit of a paraphrase, not a direct quote, but it captures her spirit. She went through some excruciating trials (such as becoming blind in mid-life) that could have made her bitter or resigned, but she did quite the opposite. 

What are your three sources of support?

What are the three people or resources that will help you create safe, stable and nurturing relationships in your world? I’d love to hear about them in the comments! Or better yet, tweet them to social media with the hashtag #FindYour3.